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Wild and Desolate: Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Namibia is a perfect country for a fly-drive holiday. The roads are wide and, outside the towns and cities, virtually empty, which makes for remarkably easy driving. You can drive for thousands of kilometres across spectacular scenery, encounter amazing wildlife and even take yourself on safari. You don’t even need a 4WD, we hired a saloon car which was just perfect. Many of the roads are constructed of gravel so it’s advisable to pack a spare tyre (or two) just in case you get a puncture. If you do get a puncture you can be sure that any passers-by will stop to help you fix it but you can’t guarantee that you will encounter a passer-by. We visited Namibia before SatNavs were widely used so we navigated with old-fashioned map. When we got hold of our map of the entire country it seemed surprisingly basic – just showing the main roads. But we soon discovered that the map was definitely detailed enough for travelling vast distances as there are very few roads. The map also helpfully pinpointed the location of petrol stations. We made a point of topping up the tank at every opportunity – our car had good fuel economy but distances are long and you really don’t want to run out of petrol.

One region that we particularly wanted to explore was the Skeleton Coast, the western coastline where the Namib desert meets the South Atlantic. It is a place that is truly wild and lives up to its name – where the skeletons of animals and shipwrecks are scattered across the sandy beaches. The coastline is incredibly long and large parts of it totally inaccessible. From Swakopmund we drove north as far as it was possible to drive.

And at either end we ate our most and least decadent meals, two nights apart.

We had driven to Swakopmund from Windhoek via the amazing red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and spent a couple of days there, having a great time taking part in all sorts of adventuresome activities – you can parasail, go hot-air ballooning, ride the dunes on quad bikes or even go along the coastline to Walvis Bay and kayak with seals. There are loads of tour operators in town that offer activities and you can make bookings with them directly. Some activities, such as the hot-air ballooning need some notice, for others you can just roll up on the day.

Swakopmund is the largest town on the coast, it’s small and friendly and bears an influence of German colonial architecture. We had our most decadent meal in this town. The Tug restaurant is located on a jetty right on the coastline and, as its name suggests, was constructed around a tug -boat – a Danie Hugo to be precise. Being right on the coast, naturally the restaurant specialises in seafood. And you can look out to the Atlantic as you dine.

We ordered a sharing dish – the seafood extravaganza: rock lobsters, kabeljou and kingklip fillets, juicy prawns cooked in their shells and the softest melt-in-the-mouth calamari we had ever eaten. All washed down with a crisp white wine. We visited some years ago and a quick glance at the most recent menu online reveals a slightly different offering to the one we dined on but it’s lovely that an indulgent seafood feast is still available.

We left Swakopmund early the next morning as we had a long drive ahead of us. It was going to be a full day’s journey along an isolated gravel road through the Skeleton Coast national park. We passed by the smelly Cape Cross seal colony and onto the park.

The gates were ominous. You need a permit to enter the park and we had to register our arrival. There are different types of permit – if you plan to stay on the coast you need to obtain an overnight permit.

Once we had entered the park we saw just one other car in the  entire day. We didn’t suffer a puncture but were glad that we had spare tyres in the trunk of the car in case we had needed them. We were driving a two-wheel drive car so kept to the road but stopped off at various points along the way to explore the wild, windswept beaches, observing shipwrecks and other skeletons. The area is quite often misty as the heat of the desert hits the cold air above the ocean and it adds to the enigmatic nature of the stark landscape.

Our final destination was the Terrace Bay resort, near the Uniab River Delta. It’s very remote and popular with anglers but there are things to do if you’re not into fishing. We enjoyed walking along the beach and across the dunes. The accommodation in chalets wasn’t luxurious but was perfectly fine. The car was filthy.

Food was taken in a communal dining hall. Because the area is so remote, we weren’t expecting a brilliant meal. It may have been a far cry from the seafood extravaganza but our dinner was good old fish and chips and they were absolutely great. The dessert in the desert was that 1970s classic, Angel Delight. I have no idea what Angel Delight actually is. It feels like it basically comprises a powder to which you add milk and stir to get a soft, creamy dessert. It was our first Angel Delight in decades and – don’t tell anyone – it was surprisingly good.

It is possible to explore further along the coast but not by car – you would have to fly. After leaving the Skeleton Coast we headed inland towards Damaraland, stopping to admire the famous Welwitschia plant some of which can live to be over a thousand years old, and eventually the Etosha National Park.


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